Print, like all technologies, is constantly evolving. And although it’s impossible to definitively forecast its future, there are three trends whose further development should be interesting to watch: 3D printing, printed electronics, and the integration of print and mobile devices.
3D printing, which has roots in industrial prototyping, is the automated fabrication of objects by devices that function somewhat similar to inkjet printers or plotters. Recently, this process has become a market of its own, with applications ranging from toy models to jewelry and even prosthetics. The research firm Wohlers Associates estimates sales for all 3D printing products and services worldwide at $1.66 billion in 2012 and approaching $3.1 billion by 2016.
There are, of course, companies that specialize in 3D printing, and checking them out might be worthwhile. One popular company, Shapeways, offers the online creation and ordering of personalized, 3D printed products from a site that has a community feel to it. Another popular company offering a very specific application of 3D printing is MyRobotNation.com. This startup, founded by veterans of the gaming industry, allows users to create and personalize full-color 3D models of robots. With both Shapeways and MyRobotNation.com, the business model truly is 3D Web-to-print.
Developing almost as quickly as the market for 3D printing is the market for printed electronics. Currently, a variety of printing processes is used for printed electronics, including offset, gravure, flexo, screen, and inkjet. As in production graphic arts printing, inkjet in particular presents unique opportunities because it is a digital process that allows for flexibility and customization. According to research from Printed Electronics World, the total volume of the printed, organic, and flexible electronics market in 2012 will be $9.4 billion, and this figure is estimated to jump to $44.3 billion by 2021. Some current and future applications for printed electronics are organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays and lighting, conductors, integrated circuits, e-paper displays, and solar cells.
Although not necessarily printed electronics, applications combining print and electronics using radio frequency identification (RFID) and near field communication (NFC) chip technology have been around for a few years now and are beginning to hit the mainstream. Notably, the April 2012 issue of WIRED contains an ad with an embedded NFC tag. Readers with NFC-enabled Android phones can simply tap the ad with their phone and they are taken to a corresponding mobile site. WIRED’s NFC ad was printed by Quad/Graphics, and this is the first time that the technology has been used in a widely distributed American magazine.
Augmented Reality & More
The general trend exhibited in the WIRED example—the integration of print with mobile devices—has picked up steam quickly over the last few years and looks to continue growing. And although NFC technology can link print and mobile via implanted chips, perhaps more familiar to many people are instances where a smartphone’s camera is the key element that integrates the two—this includes technologies like augmented reality, QR codes, and intelligent image recognition.
While QR code technology is still very viable if used effectively, the development of intelligent image recognition technology could represent a leap forward. The idea is the same—take a picture of a printed piece with your smartphone’s camera and you are directed to some type of related content on your smartphone’s browser. However, with intelligent image recognition, the phone does not need bar codes or other visible markers to recognize what it’s seeing.